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The Decorous Gentleman of NYU

Following up on my comment on the tacky reception Justice Scalia got at NYU, the student involved, one Eric Berndt, has just had his rather histrionic justification outed at Wonkette. It's reads like something you'd expect from a high school sophomore:

Do not presume to tell me when and with how much urgency to stand up for our rights.

I am 17 months out of a lifelong closet and have lost too much time to heterosexist hegemony to tolerate those who say, as Dr. King put it, "just wait." If you cannot stomach a breach of decorum when justified outrage erupts then your support is nearly worthless anyway. At least do not allow yourselves to become complicit in discrimination by demanding obedience from its victims. Many of our classmates chose NYU over higher-ranked schools because of our reputation as a "private university in the public service" and our commitment to certain values.

Apparently Mr. Berndt thinks etiquette isn't one of those values to which NYU should be committed. Thankfully, it certainly appears that he's in the minority.

Actually, the problem is very much one of values, particularly the all-too-common value judgment that "if something is not legally prohibited, it must be proper behavior." I'd expound further, but Will Baude has beat me to the main issue, and puts it rather well:

There's no particular reason that the notion of "privacy" for purposes of academic and social etiquette should perfectly track the notion of "privacy" for purposes of constitutional law. Etiquette is a bottom-up institution determined by the evolving standards of society. Law (at least written constitutional law and statutory law, if not common law) is laid down in written rules set forth in large books. It would be passing strange if the legal standards devised by the 39th Congress and ratified by mid 19th-century citizens rose or fell with the evolving standards of etiquette.

Strange indeed. Further, if a university can't invite a Supreme Court justice to an awards ceremony without his being insulted--if this is the atmosphere to which a university will submit its guests--then what kind of intellectual climate can it hope to foster? What good is NYU's much-vaunted dedication to diversity if it acts to oppress intellectual engagement? Does it really matter if your mob is rainbow-coloured?

Fortunately, it appears that NYU's Dean has no time for such things. I have no word of any action taken against students or protestors, but it's nice to see at least this condemnation.


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In this case, I think most people at NYU are pretty mortified by Berndt's behavior. At least, that's the picture I get from talking to friends there. As to Berndt himself, I think he both has a point and doesn't. On one hand, Scalia hasn't shown much respect to the LGBT community. I mean, he likened legalizing homosexual relationships to the first domino on the way to legalizing bestiality. That's pretty disrespectful right there. On the other hand, Berndt's question obviously missed the point and did more to harm his cause than help it. People who disagree with the Justice are now actually outraged *for* Scalia. You and I obviously disagree soemtimes on the limits and extent of decorum, but, on this one, I'm right there with you. What Berndt did was stupid and ill thought out. He could've been much more effective by asking a pointed question that made Scalia look like the aggressor instead of the victim.
Made me laugh. Scalia's fair game for this, as indeed is anyone who spends their time passing judgement on other people's personal behaviour. That's not to say they shouldn't (pass judgement) just that we do at least have a right to ask (if not to know). You of course have the right to be offended - as does Scalia. Still, imagine if someone had asked Jefferson if he slept with his slaves. Might have spared you a civil war. Martin
Etiquette = death? Sometimes I get the feeling that calls for "decorum," much like the recent calls for "academic freedom," are actually ways to silence speech through appeals to so-called common decency and manners. It's the right wing appropriating the lessons of the PC era. The people I really take issue with in the NYU affair are the protesters who were reportedly chanting outside a Scalia event, intending to drown out the presentations inside. That's actual silencing, and that's wrong. Being rude like Brendt was perhaps a bad political move, but it doesn't go against the principles of free speech. If NYU sanctions anyone, it should be those protesters, not Brandt.
MJD: If you somehow believe that anyone's life hinges upon asking a Supreme Court justice about his personal sex acts in a public forum, I can only believe you've taken leave of your senses. True, Berndt's acts don't violate the principle of free speech. It's a fairly impoverished view of social discourse if that's the only principle that remains inviolate.
That was a reference to Act Up's slogan, Silence = Death. Act Up is well known for its confrontational, even obnoxious style in its AIDS and anti-homophobia advocacy. Obviously, many impassioned activists are not going to just "go along to get along," even in conversation with a Venerable Personage like Scalia.
I fail to see how Mr. Berndt's question differs from the question Justice Scalia proposes to ask every member of the LGBT community. Mr. Berndt simply held Justice Scalia to his own standards.

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